• The Spark
  • Posts
  • Cannabis: source of inspiration or object of innovation?

Cannabis: source of inspiration or object of innovation?

Substance for Sunday: The power of the plant on the human brain

Cannabis is a plant with many names and many faces. It supplies a nutrient-rich food in the form of its seeds, resilient fabric in the form of hemp and psychoactive components known either as an infamous intoxicant or life-saving medicine. Eight thousand years before the birth of Christ, paper, fishing nets, and five thousand other products were made from locally grown Chinese hemp. Unless you were a member of the country’s silk-wearing ultra-rich, you would most likely find yourself clothed in hemp.

With hemp’s help, the Chinese would become the first civilization in the world to create paper, at a time when no books existed even in Europe. The Chinese called the plant Má, literally translated as “plant with two forms,” to recognize the stark differences between the male and female types.

When it was discovered that hemp fibers were superior to bamboo bowstrings, hemp became the first known plant to be mass-cultivated for the singular purpose of waging war. By imperial decree, portions of China were reserved exclusively for the purpose of growing the cannabis plant on an enormous scale. Until the fifth century, the Chinese closely guarded their secrets of hemp production. Hemp paper would not appear in Europe until the eighth century.

Before Europe got a whiff of its sweet perfume, cannabis was also grown in the northern foothills of the Indian continent, in much of modern day Pakistan, Nepal and Kashmir. Oil, porridge, flour and even popcorn were coaxed from the plant by the inventive and culinarily attuned Indians. The ancient water-soaking method, practiced by the early inhabitants of the Indian continent, is still occasionally used today in parts of France and elsewhere, to obtain hemp fibers. Mexican farmers eventually copied the Indian water-soaking method, to create a dazzling array of traditionally oversized hats, along with hemp bags and carpets.

Similar to Chinese Má, the Indians were also struck with hemp’s two distinct forms, and dedicated the plant to Kali – the goddess with two faces. As Catholics developed a religious affinity for wine, so too was cannabis fully integrated into Hindu religious life in India, where its use was associated with devotion to Kali.

On the Indian continent, hemp was present at every wedding and great life event, pervasive as wine in every Church. Hindu legend holds that Shiva was given the title ‘The Lord of Bhang,’ after a type of edible cannabis the supreme Hindu deity was said to personally enjoy. According to the Vedas, cannabis is one of five sacred plants cultivated by gods, having an angel inside its leaves, making the herb part of traditional Ayurveda medicine for thousands of years.

It is difficult to precisely date Indian versus Chinese utilizations of cannabis, but the plant seems to have been most deeply understood by these two societies prior to the common era, most likely starting out in Asia and making its way southward into northern India. It also appears, however, that the Greeks and Romans weren’t exactly naive. In the first century AD, Greek physician and Roman citizen Galen spoke favorably about cannabis use.

Known for out-writing just about every author of antiquity, Galen’s output was profuse, with nearly half of all surviving ancient Greek literature bearing his name. It seems that these Greeks may have applied less advanced cannabis techniques than their Indian cousins, opting to simply plate hemp seeds with bits of the psychoactive flower still attached. This primitive drug and tasty snack, popular during social gatherings, was considered a “promoter of high spirits,” with Galen adding that the seeds “create a feeling of warmth, and if consumed in large amounts – affect the head by sending to it a warm and toxic vapor.” Galen also recorded that the cannabis-infused wine was served at parties.

The Romans would go further, later holding two vast hemp arsenals, one on either side of the alps in Ravenna and Vienna. The Roman hemp harvest dramatically impacted the empire’s access to clothing, shelter, food, medicine, aggression and defense. In other words, an absolutely profound and nearly unrivaled importance among crops, though not primarily as a psychoactive. Greek and Roman propagation solidified hemp's identity as a crop sustaining the spread of pagan faiths, prior to Constantine’s conversion.

In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a ban on cannabis in a bid to crack down on European cannabis growers, many of whom were still pagan and deemed to be witches and sorcerers. On the fifth of December, during the first year of his papacy, Innocent created a papal bull known as “Summis desiderantes,” meaning “desiring with supreme ardor.” The bull followed the request of Dominican Inquisitor Heinrich Kramer, who sought official approval to pursue witches after local German ecclesiastical authorities refused him.

In proscribing magic and witchcraft, Summis desiderantes took aim at many medicinal herbs and hallucinogens – allowing wine and nothing else as part of religious worship. The edict labeled cannabis an unholy sacrament of the satanic mass, a practice for which thousands of traditional healers would be accused during the Spanish Inquisition. Simply having a deep knowledge of plants other than the wine grape was, for a time, likely to shorten one’s lifespan.

By the ninth century, Charlemagne reversed course, allowing and even encouraging hemp cultivation. In their monasteries, monks wrote manuscripts on hemp paper, often by the light of hemp oil lamps. Although European paper quality would later plummet when wood pulp became the standard, paper in the age of hemp was known for its superior grade – giving rise to the first printed Bible (the “Gutenberg Bible”), the first draft of the American Constitution and the original Declaration of Independence. Although hemp initially arrived in America with Christopher Columbus, cannabis seeds are also said to have traveled with African slaves. As its use for parchment declined, so did paper’s quality.

The expansion of the British into India and the French into North Africa kindled an awareness of hemp’s psychoactive properties, which for centuries had been concealed by cannabis' incredible versatility as a fiber. Cannabis imported from Dutch colonies in South Africa since the 1660s was smoked in coffee shops back home, a tradition that remains unchanged in Amsterdam today.

Hashish in France is said to date back to Napoleon's Egyptian campaign – the very name “hashish” arguably shares etymological roots with assassin. After one such assassin (reportedly under the influence of hashish) made an attempt on Bonaparte’s life, the general banned the substance in Egypt.

The connection between hashish and assassination remains historically and etymologically controversial, with inconclusive evidence that the words are related. According to Webster's Dictionary, the word "hashish" was first used in 1598, the same year the words "dildo" and "puritanical" first appeared, as well as the first time "pothouse" was used to mean "tavern. " "Hash house" or "hashery" would not appear until 1865, and was exclusively used to refer to inexpensive restaurants (that served food, not drugs).

The group of Muslim assassins associated with the word "hashish" belonged to a Shiite group called the Nizaris, specifically an elite unit of assassins known as Fida’is. These men were referred to by historian Bernard Lewis as "the first terrorists" but the accusation is difficult to prove. It remains unclear whether their association with hashish is historically accurate or a simply a means of slandering a group that primarily targeted Sunnis. Fewer than 8 European targets of the Nizaris were ever recorded.

StraightDope.com writer DWeiss explained, "Legends about the medieval assassins derive primarily from sensational Sunni Muslim and European writings and are greatly exaggerated...[Nizaris] were responsible for contributions in architecture, philosophy, science, and theology. While they did attack their enemies, they didn’t engage in random slaughter."

Weiss continued that medieval chroniclers used the Arabic term hashishiyya (user of hash) to designate the Nizaris. "The word became inseparable from the stories of murder, treachery, and excess," he wrote.

Fast forward to after American Civil War, and cannabis was making its way from Mexico into the US south, facing an unfavorable reception by cotton oligarchs who wished to hold their monopoly on fabric production. During the outbreak of WWII, Japan wrested control of hemp production in Manchuria and Philippines, wresting control and increasing production with skilled Japanese laborers shipped from the mainland.

When Hitler's armies blocked England's supply of Russian hemp, cultivation of cannabis remained illegal in Great Britain, even as the Third Reich cultivated it for use in rope, parachute straps, belts and other small but vital sinews of war. To adjust, Great Britain urged its Indian colonies to increase their production.

After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, America found itself completely cut off from its regular centers of hemp production, and began shipping cannabis seeds to American farmers. Marijuana was temporarily, conditionally legal and, in 1942, the black and white propaganda film "Hemp for Victory" was released. Not until 1944, when Douglas MacArthur retook the Philippines from the Japanese, would American hemp reach pre-war levels of production.

Ignoring a post-war American ban, French farmers continued the widespread cultivation of cannabis until the 1950s, when hemp was displaced by synthetic fibers. Although hemp as a fiber would never recover, the overlooked psychoactive flowers would secure cannabis' reentry into the mainstream during the cultural revolts of the 1960s.

Along the same theme as “beer before bread” and “stoned ape” hypotheses, Carl Sagan suggested in 1977 that cannabis might have been the first agricultural crop, giving rise to civilization as we know it. Cannabis also connects with Laterally’s mission to unlock creativity’s secrets, being a favorite of musicians and artists.

In Dr. Andrew Huberman’s January 2023 YouTube short, “How Cannabis (Marijuana) Affects the Brain & Body,” the neuroscientist said that its mechanism of action occurs through CB1 receptors, leading to "either an acceleration or a brake on particular biological mechanisms” and “a constellation of different accelerations and braking of different neural systems in the brain and body depending on whether or not people ingest sativa or indica or some hybrid strain.”

“There is no way to predict what the effect of a given strain will be on an individual,” Huberman stated. “Whether or not someone gets incredible anxiety relief, enhanced sense of mood and focus and wellbeing, pain relief, – or whether they have fullblown panic attacks, is very hard to predict based on dosage information alone.”

Huberman explained that cannabis affects the hippocampus to reduce memory, regardless of what type of cannabis is smoked.

“In general the prefrontal cortex is going to be activated by the sativa varieties, which is going to increase thinking and narrowly constrain focus. The indica varieties … tend to lead to a suppression of activities in the prefrontal cortex, believe it or not, and turn off thinking and planning – this is why indica varieties are often used for relaxation and for promoting sleep,” he said.

“Regardless of the ratio of THC to CBD there is a general suppression of neural circuits within the basal ganglia and cerebellum. The basal ganglia is associated with action, planning and withholding action – so-called ‘go-no-go-circuitry.’ The cerebellum is involved in balance but also motor planning and motor sequencing, this is why people who smoke marijuana, regardless of the strain, tend to be less physically mobile.”

Although Huberman did not address the issue of creativity directly, cannabis stands out among all substances for its remarkable safety, being both non-toxic and not physically addictive. For those of legal age and responsibility, the best way to gauge this substance’s interaction with inspiration may be to try it.